Professor Tang Wai-lan, Gladys, has been conducting linguistic research on Hong Kong Sign Language and deaf children’s development of sign language and spoken language since the 1990s. From her interactions with deaf people over the years, she has noticed a general misunderstanding about sign language in society. The misunderstanding has undermined the importance of sign language in educating deaf students. Consequently, deaf people have been denied equal opportunities in education and employment. “Although deaf people are in the minority in society and the student population is only about 2,000 annually, we must not leave out any of them – this is a fundamental principle of education,” said Professor Tang. Professor Tang is determined to improve deaf people’s opportunities for university education and to raise their academic standard. She hopes that, besides the oralist approach, some deaf students in Hong Kong may enjoy the benefits of the sign bilingual approach in their education, i.e. being supported by sign language and spoken language.
For deaf adults of Hong Kong and Asia, Professor Tang has been organizing diploma and higher diploma programs in sign linguistics and sign language teaching. The higher diploma program aims to qualify deaf people to apply to universities for higher education. Alternatively, they will become competent enough to be professional sign language teachers. Some deaf graduates of the programs are currently part-time instructors for the Hong Kong Sign Language electives at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Their teaching enhances the sign language competency of university students and raises their deaf awareness.
Professor Tang pointed out that a great majority of deaf children are receiving mainstream education and their learning under those environments is quite difficult due to the oralist approach. Even in special schools, teachers tend to give lessons orally. Between 2002 and 2006, Professor Tang collaborated with the Education Bureau in an attempt to implement “sign bilingualism” in educating deaf students. With some funding, she hired deaf instructors to work with hearing teachers in the classroom. The scheme received highly positive response from the students whose Chinese language competency also showed significant improvement.
Since 2006, Professor Tang has been raising funds to implement “sign bilingualism and co-enrollment” in mainstream education. So far a kindergarten and a primary school have been participating in the program. Together with the baby signing classes and Chinese reading classes, these programs benefit more than 70 deaf children each year. A mainstream secondary school will soon join force with Professor Tang to continue to provide opportunities for deaf students and hearing students with signing skills to learn and grow up together. In six years from now, the first batch of students educated under the philosophy of sign bilingualism and co-enrollment will be expected to enter university together.